Richard Ruane of R. Rook Studio was kind enough to answer some questions for this interview series. They are known in the indie and OSR-gaming circles for quirky and imaginative games and adventures that incorporate romance and queer culture: Moonlight on Roseville Beach (which has one of my all time favorite covers), Barrow Keep: Den of Spies, and the recently released My Chivalric Bromance. You can find them on itch and Drivethru.
Question. Talk about your gaming influences. You've got such an eclectic mix of products -- from standard dungeon crawls to Spelljammer-esque settings to more traditional fantasy. It's an impressive range, and I'm wondering what your main influences are. Also, even though the genres may vary, there's a theme of social justice and diversity that runs through your games. Can you touch on this a bit?
Answer. I've been thinking about this a lot lately, thinking about the through-lines for the kinds of projects I get most excited about as I start planning out what I'm going to do professionally over the next couple of years and how I'm going to make sure I choose projects that will hold my interest and stave off burn out.
I had a weird journey to doing the TTRPG stuff I do now. My high school friends and I played a lot of AD&D, but the games I actually really remember were Champions and Villains & Vigilantes, and one of the things that fascinated me most were the supers genre kept pushing you to create your own stakes: people, places, and things players/PCs care about. I got caught up in Evangelicalism for several years and stopped gaming, but when I came back, about the time I came out of the closet, I fell hard for White Wolf's World of Darkness, especially the original Mage: The Ascension, especially as it was developed under Satyros Brucato. Again, the urban fantasy genre itself kept pushing players to make their own stakes. I got to do some work for White Wolf in the long ago times, and my tastes have definitely moved in a direction that prefers far, far lighter rules and anticanon lore, but the way a genre's tropes (even more than a system's mechanics) pushed you to think about who you were in relation to the world stayed with me.
When I came back for to gaming for a third time, I had a blast playing D&D 4e, but missed both the stakes-driven play I'd enjoyed in World of Darkness and the necessity for creative problem solving that was essential to protecting what you cared about from forces you shouldn't be able to handle. 5e, which I ran for public play for several years, continued the trend to low-stakes, high-powered, pre-planned adventure arcs in its publishing, and my interest just kept waning. I was falling hard, though, for lots of games in the OSR games, especially DCC and Beyond the Wall and the PbtA world and some adjacent spaces (Monsterhearts, Apocalypse World, Lady Blackbird, and most especially, Psi*Run and Good Society).
When I started designing games, I was primarily thinking of expanding on or hacking these sorts of games, and that was a fairly fruitful place to start, I think. I ran an early version of Enoch's Wake with my Friday-night home group, co-GM'd by my friend Ben. We started with a rough outline of the comet city, a rough idea of how ships work, mostly player facing, and dropped a ton of names without a lot of detail, wrote a character generation system, and used a one-move PbtA system (like World of Dungeons or Offworlders). About a year later, the character creation and basic system became Dark Designs in Verdigris and the setting, mixed with some Cepheus/Traveller mechanics, became Enoch's Wake.
But I found it even more fruitful to start with sprawling sets of tropes, images, and ideas and then play around with mechanics that would make them fun to play with and otherwise stay out of their way. Barrow Keep started with my friend and collaborator Theo Rivera talking about how to do Game of Thrones with OSR-style mechanics. We started with a minimal hack of Beyond the Wall which we played for several sessions. I kept poking at it, though, and it acquired more influences, especially romantic fantasy series novels from writers like Robin McKinley, Robin Hobb, and Mercedes Lackey. Moonlight on Roseville Beach, similarly, started with thinking about the "beach detective" genre and how that wouldn't work in a historical queer beach community because of violence cops have perpetrated against queer people, then I started wondering what would happen if the game involved amateur investigators in a world where characters from 50s-60s queer pulp met tropes from 20s-30s cosmic and gothic horror pulp, then I played around with what kind of mechanics would be fun to use. Sherwood started with running Romance of the Perilous Land during lockdown. I dug into Robin McKinley's YA novel Outlaws of Sherwood, rewatched some episodes of BBC Robin Hood and ITV's Robin of Sherwood, and read the oldest extant Robin Hood ballads. Eventually that got mixed in my head with the mechanics I'd written for Enoch's Wake, and the scholarly work of Lesley Coote and Stephen Knight, and I realized character creation was all about what you did before you fled to the woods to live as an outlaw. Then Robin Hood moved into my head and wouldn't leave. I've found that I'm most passionate about projects that start with this near bottomless well of source material that I can keep discovering, rediscovering, and digging into.
I think the themes of justice come into my work because they're issues in the setting itself. "Who are powerful people (including the powerful people I love and am allied to) hurting?" is a core question for a lot fo the characters in Barrow Keep. "How do I keep the people I care about safe?" is pretty fundamental to Roseville Beach, and "how does an outlaw (who is legally not even a person in the world of the game) work for personal and communal justice?" is pretty fundamental to Sherwood. This doesn't really emerge from the mechanics of the game so much as the setting and the tropes, characters, and communities that live in them.
Q. Can you tell us a bit about your thoughts on incorporating romance in gaming? It's something that traditionally isn't really codified in the rules and isn't explored at the table that often; when I was growing up, references to romance were either jokes about having sex with everything you encounter, the random harlot table, or just not even dealt with. Do you think that the growing diversity in gamers is allowing the subject to be treated more seriously, or at least, with less toxicity?
A. For romance in games, the mistake I keep seeing people make, especially straight dudes who advise others on running romance games even though they are profoundly inexperienced at romance as a genre, is focusing on mechanizing the "seduction" (which is fucking creepy and has more to do with the toxic myth of so-called "pickup artists" than romance) and the rarer, but also uninformed, dude who wants to mechanize the progress of a relationship: making the best decisions and avoid errors (exactly, as Noora Rose of Monkey's Paw Games pointed out, like they would tackle a combat encounter). Ultimately, though, this treats fictional relationships like engineering problems. I make fun of GURPS, a game line that covers romance in depth in its book GURPS: Social Engineering (no, that's actually the title, and the cover is lifted directly from the same stock art set that's used by romance cover designers), but it's true of so many games that try to mechanize romance/relationships/intimacy.
There are a range of ground-breaking games about romance out there: Emily Care-Boss has been doing amazing stuff since the aughts and Adira Slattery and Jess Marcrum are among the really talented designers continuing to do really cool stuff in this space). The game that really shook-up the way I think up about romance in TTRPGs was Good Society. The game focuses on the fiction of Jane Austen, whose work is very much the forerunner of contemporary romance writing. Storybrewers doesn't make this such a successful game by mechanizing relationships, but by giving characters goals and relationships and then setting them loose in a freeform way to pursue them. Consistently, the power of the game comes from the way goals and relationships transform when they come into contact with the actual other characters and their wants, needs, etc.
Q. Talk about My Chivalric Bromance. Is there anything with the game that you think turned out better than you had envisioned it? It has its roots in an itch game jam; what was that process like?
A. I have a ton of respect for Noora Rose and it's been a big privilege to work with her before. When she announced the OSR June Jam, I knew I wanted to do something, but wasn't sure what. Starting as a joke, I put together a quick demo cover, using Tony Marturano's stock image of a knight kissing his male lover and called it Chivalric Bromance and posted it to Twitter. Game designer Wendi Yu quickly (and correctly) let me know that it should be My Chivalric Bromance. Around that time, I was finishing up my work on Sherwood. I'd read a bunch of ballads in the process of developing that game and had also dabbled in some of the medieval "Greenwood" romances of exiled and outlawed knights (including Eustace the Monk, Hereward the Wake, and Fulk FitzWarin). Some of those texts are fairly explicit in their homophobia, and I'd wondered what kind of OSR-friendly system I could get by pulling inspiration from both medieval chivalric romances with contemporary queer romances (often set in medieval and fantastical locales). I got very interested in the idea of the knights and squires in this game as exiles—banished from their homes, potentially because of who they loved. Thanks to a post from an OSR discussion group, I'd also been thinking about OSR-style games that abandoned the idea of numerical stats (much like Down We Go), so I adapted a tag based system inspired by So You Want to Be an Adventurer, Lady Blackbird, and City of Mist. Initially, I had used a d20 system that involved counting relevant tags and rolling against a difficulty, but eventually, after some playtesting, changed it to a dice pool system with mechanics more like Lady Blackbird and Lumen.
I'd done my own layout and a small print run for Free RPG Day, and saved a few copies to give away at Gen Con. One of those went to Jarrett Crader of Exalted Funeral, who encouraged me to finish the game and get it printed through them. That gave me a chance to do another project with Eric (who's doing the cover and interior design on Sherwood) and Scott (who did the editing on another 2022 project, Dragonmaw Cave).
The idea of "thirst alignment" also started as a joke, with instructions to take it as seriously as you would your D&D alignment, but after one session, a playtester who had a background in medieval studies and OSR gaming talked about how that mechanic gave play the feel of a chivalric romance. All in all, for a game developed fairly quickly, I've found it's consistently a light, fun system capable of running and playing through my favorite OSR adventures.
Q. Finally, share what you're currently working on. Are there any upcoming projects you'd like to plug, or anything else you'd like to draw attention to?
A. For 2023, I've got three projects I want to take to crowdfunding: Heroes of Cliffside is a standalone game in the Barrow Keep setting, but focused on the vigilantes who protect the keep's nearby town; I'm also planning to do a Scooby-Doo inspired hack of Roseville Beach, entitled Saturday Morning Mysteries with art from my good friend Bill Roundy; and an anthology of material for Moonlight on Roseville Beach (though I'm torn between titles: either Dim All the Lights or The Lonely Cool Before Dawn). I'm also working on a couple of hackers guides with open licenses for the game systems I did this year.